Photo of boy on his first day at school in the spectrum design

As a new school year begins again, we spoke to Louise Williams, mother to James, who is autistic. In this blog, Louise tells the story of James' first day at school and how this led to his autism diagnosis...

On a bright morning in September 2013 my husband and I stood with James in his new playground waiting for him to file into the reception class. It was James’ first day at school.

My other son, George, is only 13 months older than James and he had started reception on the exact same day the previous year. With them being so close in age it was difficult to not compare them and that day was no exception. I remember vividly, noticing that James seemed unaware of the appropriate distance to stand behind his future classmate in the line. The child in front of him was a friend from nursery so James knew him - maybe that was why he was close enough to have the little boys hair in his mouth? His friend didn’t care, neither did the other boys mother. She said something like “Is James excited?” and I answered, “I think so…. James is very different to the other kids!” I am sure in that moment she had no idea what I was on about, I don’t think I did either. But, the fact remained that James was noticeably “different”.

He was loud but didn’t like loud noises - he found hand dryers so terrifying that we had bought him a pair of precautionary ear defenders to use when out and about.

He couldn’t walk up and downstairs at home on his own, he needed someone to hold his hand or carry him.

He was a terrible sleeper, needing me to lay with him at night, sometimes for hours to help him drift off - and if he woke up, even if it was as early as 2am that was it, it was the morning as far as he was concerned. He got up and I had to too.

But it was fine. He was just eccentric.

I am happy to report that James first day was fine. He didn’t cry when he went in and he came out happy. Perfect.

However, before we even got to the first parents evening my husband and I were called in to discuss James.

He was not compliant.

He didn’t listen.

He couldn’t/wouldn’t change for PE.

He found it hard to sit on the carpet in this reception class - he would lay down or even just get up and wander off.

He regularly left the classroom and would hide under desks all over the school.

He would eat sand and playdoh.

No one could get him to make marks with pencils though he would chew them.

He was also a bit bitey.

“So?” I said. “He’s 4” I said. “He’s one of the youngest in his year!” I said.

The school told us that they were going to have James use a special cushion in class that might help him with his sitting and they would pop him onto the special needs register, so he would get some early interventions.

“Fine!” I said, with my arms folded across my chest. “Do whatever you feel you need to do,” I muttered. We left the meeting furious that anyone could think that James was anything other than a lovely bundle of fun. I was incandescent with rage. “How dare they?” I probably said.

But then I was getting called in almost every day at pick up time. The teacher, Miss Brown, would stand in the doorway and scan the throng of parents before dismissing each child. Normal practice was to make eye contact with each carer before releasing their dishevelled kid. I would stand there, tense, thinking, “PLEASE BE NO INCIDENT PLEASE BE NO INCIDENT”, but she would clock me and mouth, “Can I see you for a moment?”. My heart would sink. My cheeks would go crimson and I would shuffle to the door while the other parents tried to look uninterested as they basked in the relief that it wasn’t their child in trouble again.

How would James “misbehave”? Let me count the ways. Destroying other children’s drawings, refusing to do his own work, laying down (that cushion wasn’t working) leaving taps running, pinching, punching, almost peeing in the middle of the playground. Eating clay. Everyday seemed to bring something new.

Then one afternoon right at the beginning of the summer term Miss Brown was describing another incident. This one must have been exceptional as I was actually inside the classroom and all the other kids and parents had gone home. George and James were playing in the book corner as I listened to her recount the days escapades. “Let it not involve another child” I would think to myself, weary of the prospect of having to apologise to another parent for James’ behaviour if he had hurt/upset a classmate. “…And when I was talking to him” Miss Brown explained, “he wasn’t making eye contact." WHAT? Eye contact? This struck a chord with him. It seemed important. And without thinking or ever even having it cross my mind I blurted out to her “do you think he might have Aspergers, or something?”

I swear on my dog, I have no recollection of ever thinking that before. It seemed to come from nowhere. Miss Brown was floored and said, “Ummm, well, maybe I mean, I am not sure, you should probably see a specialist and talk to them”.

I couldn’t get us out of the classroom fast enough. We got home, I made a few calls to family and everyone said “What?! James? Autistic? Don’t be daft, he is just eccentric” but I think on some level I already knew. Instead of going through the NHS, and potentially waiting for 2 years for a diagnosis we were lucky enough that we were able to take a quicker route. Using my husband’s private medical cover he had with his job we arranged to see a child psychiatrist who specialised in autism. The doctor said he would need three sessions with James and us before he could make a diagnosis. The doc, who I didn’t really “gel” with clearly made his decision about James in that first session, though he held out to the last one before telling us. Yes, James was definitely on the autistic spectrum. Both my husband and I felt a sense of relief when it was official. Things clicked into place, it all made sense, and now we could help James. His teachers, friends and our family would be able to understand him better and make allowances for him.

At this time of year I often think back to James’ first day at school, and how I sensed even then he was unique and dissimilar to his peers. I am grateful to this day at how Miss Brown and the rest of the staff at James’ primary school handled our family.

They must have had very strong suspicions that James was on the spectrum, but had to handle us gently while we figured it out for ourselves.

People often say “you shouldn’t label children” but we don’t see it like that. The label ‘autistic' when applied to James ables him to access support, be understood by others and actually understand himself.

Education Rights Service

If you can identify with James' and Louise's experience, visit our Education Rights Service helpline for information on getting the right support for your autistic child in school.

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